Gershom Mendes Seixas medal designed by Gerta Ries Wiener, struck by Medallic Art Company in quantities of 250 bronze and 205 pure silver. Obverse: Portrait, Gershom Seixas (script) 1745-1816. Reverse: Seixas leading congregants out of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue (New York), carrying ceremonial objects, Gerta Wieiner. 47 x 45.

In late August, 1776, when news came that the British were approaching New York, Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas of Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue) decided to close the synagogue rather than keep it open under British rule.

There were many men in America’s oldest congregation who had been so outspoken against the Crown, that their lives would have been in jeopardy. Seixas saw to it that all of the ceremonial objects — the scrolls, prayer books and candlesticks — were taken away for safekeeping. At the close of the Revolutionary War, Reverend Seixas returned all of these items to the congregation, where they can be seen to this day.

Seixas not only fought the British, but fought intolerance as well. In 1783, he successfully sought revisions in a constitutional clause, newly adopted by the Pennsylvania legislature, requiring a religious examination for office seekers. He was one of fourteen clergymen participating in George Washington’s first inaugural (1787), and continued to be one of the most vigorous defenders of the much-maligned James Madison administration during the War of 1812.

Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first native-born Jewish minister in the United States, was also active as a trustee in the Humane Society and as one of the first Regents of the New York State University. He was also the only non-Episcopalian to serve as a trustee of Columbia University, from 1787 to 1815.

The Seixas family has contributed many prominent Americans — Gershom’s brother, Abraham Mendes (1751-99), was an officer in the Revolutionary Army; another brother, Benjamin Mendes (1748-1817), was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange; and a third brother, Moses Mendes (1744-1809), was one of the organizers of the Bank of Rhode Island and the president of the historic Newport Synagogue. Gershom’s son, David, established the Deaf and Dumb Institute in Philadelphia, and was among the first to discover efficient ways of burning anthracite coal. Click here to read about the first Jewish American medal ― honoring Gershom Mendes Seixas ― made c. 1814.

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